Recently, I was presented with the opportunity to produce a high quality backing track for the award winning Gibraltar Youth Choir. I had previously worked with choirmaster Christian Santos, both, as a freelance operator and in my capacity as acting Producer/Director for the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation. As a freelance operator I often produced audio tracks, video content, and even worked as audio engineer for his live productions. When acting as Producer/Director, we co-produced ‘Strong’ – a film documenting preparations for a theatrical production of the same name, and an outside broadcast recording of the said production. Producing for Christian was, then, my fist choice when the opportunity to undertake work experience presented itself.
Last year Christian was rewarded for his contribution to culture in Gibraltar, and was made Director of the Gibraltar Academy of Music and Performing Arts. His production company merged with the academy, and the highly acclaimed Santos Choir became the Gibraltar Youth Choir under his continued direction. I sent an initial email offering my services to once again, produce a high quality backing track for his team. Christian requested that I produce for him a backing track for the song ‘A Star is Born’ – as featured in Disney’s Hercules (available on my Audio page).
The process of recording a multi-track audio project is intricate to say the least. Once the basic project settings have been seen to, synchronisation of the original material can take place. Since the original material was also recorded using a metronome, mapping out the timing was a simple affair – no tempo or time signature changes. The tempo for the project was set at 117.5 BPM over a 4/4 time signature. Markers were also created to help identify the song structure at a glance, making the tedious process of replicating a drum track that much easier. Having played the parts in real time on a controller keyboard, the Quantise function can then be used to tighten any loose notes.
With a solid beat in place, adding the bass guitar would then complete the rhythm section. Punch in/out recording and looping sections is a simple way to break down the song into more manageable phrases. Once the bass recording is complete, the Sample Editor can be used to trim any edits. The process for recording guitars is exactly the same as for the bass. The Amp Designer and Pedal Board simulator plug-ins allow you to choose from an ample selection of amplifiers, speakers, combos, and boutique-style effect pedals. One can also choose between a dynamic or condenser microphone, and adjust its position as required.
The keyboard instruments – recorded next – are the most easy to simulate in a home recording environment, for the simple reason that the controller keyboard’s weighted keys offer the same tactile experience as a real piano. Piano players in particular, will automatically enhance their technique to suit, therefore adding to the already realistic sampled sounds. The organ’s realism can be attributed to the real-time control of drawbars, attack/sustain functions, and the Leslie speaker settings, by means of the controller keyboard’s fully assignable sliders, knobs, and buttons.
However, reproducing the nuances of a real brass section without a dedicated plug-in is slightly more complex. A lot of the information contained in a musical note is transmitted by the musician through variations of pressure, emphasis, and attack, amongst many other nuances impossible to reproduce realistically on a keyboard. Fortunately, there are a few techniques that can then be applied to this aim. Once the brass parts have all been recorded, a swell effect can be achieved by graphically creating automation for the track volume. Dragging the volume up or down is relatively easy by means of the pencil tool. Once this process has been applied to all the desired notes, adding different horn sections to the mix can brighten up the brass sound further.
Once all the instruments have been recorded, the final mix then has the potential to ‘make or break’ the track. Any good recording engineer will be adjusting the mix in small increments as the recording process evolves, but that is not to say that the mix is finished on completion of the recording sessions. All the separate tracks have to be thoroughly checked for any unwanted audio artefacts. Furthermore, all the applied settings – amounting to thousands of parameters – have to be checked to ensure they are doing what is required of them. Once confident that all the tracks are ready to be placed, the final mixing process can commence. It is very important to schedule regular rest periods during long mixing sessions as coming back to a mix with rested ears can yield very positive results. When the overall objective is to replicate an existing piece of music, the mix also has to be as closely matched to the original as possible.
Finally, the mastering process involves an overall application of equalisation, dynamic processing, and modulation, applied to the master output. The Gain plug-in compensates for any loss in audio level caused during the mixing process, whilst the Channel EQ plug-in was used to adjust the tonal characteristics of the overall track. The Compressor plug-in softened the sound by containing the overall dynamics of the track, whilst the Adaptive Limiter imposed an absolute ceiling on the level of audio. The MultiMeter plug-in is an indispensable tool for monitoring such processing. Once complete, it is good practice to export three different audio files. The first version would be at the project rate, another at a rate that can directly burn onto an audio CD, and a final MP3 version that would nicely upload to a mobile device. The track was completed to a professional standard and as such, will feature in a special performance scheduled as part of Gibraltar’s May Day celebrations, and throughout the choir’s busy 2016 season of concerts and special appearances.
Most of the skills applied in this work placement were touched upon during my earlier studies. Audio recording and editing techniques were initially covered in the ‘Introduction to Radio’ and ‘Radio Packages’ modules. Basic principles such as audio levels and signal strength, the concept of multi-channel mixers and multi-track recordings, transients, automation, mixing, and exporting the final product, were all introduced. The marketing and self-promotional skills that one must exercise as a freelance operator were also covered in modules such as ‘The Networked Image’ and ‘Internet Communications’. Creating an online presence that exemplifies one’s understanding of the many social-media platforms currently available seems essential to successfully attract business in this convergence era of the media industry. To this aim, an understanding of the neoliberal market economics dictating the proliferation of a freelance workforce – as discussed in the ‘Media and Economy’ module – also prepares an operative for the competition that will be encountered. Knowledge of economic and production flows is then, essential to consistently attract business in a freelance capacity.
The skills applied to this commission are particularly useful if one is seeking to work in music production. Yet, forging a career in this particular sector of the media industry is notoriously difficult as many positions are filled through personal and professional acquaintances. As professional mastering engineer Justin Colletti (2011) and sound engineer David Mellor (1999) explain, graduates that do break into this sector can expect long hours of menial – and sometimes degrading – work, in exchange for little or no monetary rewards. Thankfully, most of these skills could also be applied to a career in broadcasting – I have in the past made use of such skills, particularly when employed as an Audio Technician and Audio/Visual Operator, but also as an acting Producer/Director – since video production inherently involves an element of audio editing.
However, if one is to make ingrains into this mostly freelance market, in which experienced professionals at the top of their game compete hard for their next commission, one will have to add to these – significant, yet insufficient – technical and intellectual skills. Personal attributes such as resilience, perseverance, patience, remaining virtuous and realistic; all adding to a genuine interest in continuously extending one’s knowledge on the latest technologies, trends, and working practices; might afford a budding freelance operator with a fighting chance. If one is not ready to continuously give over and above 100% commitment, even with no clear breakthrough in sight for the foreseeable future, then maybe pursuing a career on a freelance basis might not be the best choice. The alternative is of course, seeking out and competing for a permanent contract that, when appears, is similarly the focus of thousands of those highly competitive freelance operators who by now, might have amassed a long list of top commissions – some of which might even have directly or indirectly involved producing material for the employer in question. What remains certain is that a career in any sector of the mainstream media industry will always be tough and relentless, regardless of how it is pursued: the British media industry is after all, internationally renowned as leading the class.
Christian Gadd (1493 Words).
Semester 6 (January – May 2016) : Working in English, Film and Media.
Colletti, Justin, Top 10 Reasons Not to Become a Recording Engineer, in Trust Me I’m A Scientist, 7th November 2011, [online]. http://www.trustmeimascientist.com/2011/11/07/top-10-reasons-not-to-become-a-recording-engineer/ [Accessed 4/3/2016].
Mellor, David, How to Become a Recoding Engineer, in Sound on Sound, April 1999, [online]. https://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr99/articles/b.engineer.htm [Accessed 4/3/16].
Link to A Star is Born – Disney Classic Music – as requested.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EobR7GVs2d0 [Accessed 4/3/16].
Gibraltar Academy of Music and Performing Arts website.
http://www.gampa.gi [Accessed 4/3/16].
Santos Productions website.
http://www.santos-productions.com [Accessed 4/3/16].
Job Website showing the high volume of freelance or temporary positions.
http://www.filmandtvpro.com/uk/jobs [Accessed 4/3/16].
Job Website showing the limited number of permanent positions.
http://www.broadcastjobs.co.uk/ [Accessed 4/3/16].